South Korea’s rapid economic development has brought about some surprising changes within its conservative social structure, including the emergence of so-called host bars, where wealthy women pay the equivalent of thousands of dollars for male companionship.
In the dim light of an underground room, dozens of carefully prepared youths kneel in rows, calling out their names.
Muscled, with shiny hairstyles for the boy’s band, they gather side by side in the tight space, waiting for us to pick. Out in the hallway, more colleagues arrive for another night at work. It’s two in the morning and we are his first customers.
Hiding under the sidewalks of Seoul’s most luxurious postal code, Gangnam, Bar 123’s men are part of a growing industry, originating from the long traditions of Japanese geisha and Korean kişeng homes, but with one fundamental difference: the customers here are all women.
Known as “host bars”, these all-night bars are known to clients with the opportunity to select and pay for male escorts, sometimes for a cost of up to thousands of pounds a night.
One of the women I met at Bar 123 is Minkyoung, a waitress and manager of a five-star hotel. He says he comes to host bars once or twice a month.
Minkyung is very beautiful and her clothes are impeccable. It doesn’t seem like someone should pay for the company of a man. But the charm of the host bars can be subtle. Here, he says, he’s getting more attention from his male peers, more options, and most importantly, more control.
“In regular bars, men who drink with me have only one goal: to have me one night. But I don’t want that, and that’s why I came here, I want to have fun,” he says.
The hosts are set up by bars like this to provide company and entertainment. Officially, this means serving drinks, chatting, dancing with them, and singing karaoke to your customers.
James has been working at Bar 123 for the past two years. In Korean culture, he says, there is a lot of pride and the price of sex is not explicitly negotiated. Instead, tell me, it all depends on the host’s own rating.
“The men here are professionals, and we know what we’re doing,” he says.
“After talking to a girl for an hour, we basically know how much money she makes and what she does. We’ve already analyzed her personality and what she is willing to give.”
James and other hosts say that their clients include some of the South Korean elite and that the money and perks on offer are incredible. During his first week on the job, a client James met asked him to register with her for two years.